That's for Thailand

Trip Start Mar 08, 2011
Trip End Jun 11, 2011

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Where I stayed
Cozy House Inn

Flag of Malaysia  , Pulau Pinang,
Friday, May 6, 2011

May 6th, 2011. For 225 of my classmates, this day will be remembered as the day that their 2 years of studying, interviewing, and networking (which in business school talk means going to the bar and drinking) culminated in a graduation.  For me, it is the day we spent 15 hours on 3 minibuses, 1 normal bus, and a ferry to get from Koh Samui, Thailand to Penang, Malaysia in the worst transportation that we have experienced on our trip.  It's funny, I get the same questions from my classmates, friends, family, and people we meet on the trip when they find out I finished school early to go on this trip.  Are you flying back for graduation?  Aren’t you sad that you will miss graduation?  How can you go on this trip without securing a job?  Well, although I am sad that I am not in Bloomington on this day, I couldn’t be happier with my decision to explore the world.  People go to school for many reasons and my reason was to challenge myself, get out of my comfort zone, and learn new things.  This trip is the perfect way to finish two years of doing just that and a chance for me to grow out my hair and beard as some of you have noticed in the pictures (to quote my friend Tanuj who recently saw me on Skype "OMG you have a lot of hair").

Now that my Jerry Maguire style rant is out of the way, back to the blog.  Once again we woke up before 6am…what kind of vacation is this?  This is the first time we booked transportation through a third party company.  In the past it was either through our hotel, who if there were any problems, we could always give bad reviews (which is their lifeblood in this industry), or directly through the bus/ferry/plane company.  So to say I was nervous about what the transportation would be like and whether they would actually come through is an understatement (you hear a lot of stories when on the road).  We were told that we would be picked up between 6:30 and 7am.  Well, sure enough a minibus comes flying around on the tiny streets at exactly 6:59 (this is what the locals call Thai Time, as long as they arrive, it is considered on time).  We get on board to see a couple whose picture is in Webster’s dictionary under hippie, a guy who is wearing a Brazil shirt who doesn’t open his mouth for the rest of the day, and a blonde lady who was hairier than me.  We get to the pier, are told to go in the office where they hand us tickets for the ferry and bus tickets to Surat Thani, the closest town on the mainland.

We still had 30 minutes till the ferry left, so not sure why the driver was racing through the streets like we were already late.  So we go to the end of the pier and wait for the boat to arrive.  The ferry finally arrives and we immediately notice that it is not the same as the luxury catamarans we took to Koh Tao, Koh Phangan, and Koh Samui.  The boat was a little older, slower, and smellier (smelled like gasoline), but at least each seat had a life jacket, so we jump on board.  The ride was fairly smooth and we arrived on the mainland around an hour and a half later where we are separated into buses depending on our final location.  We are also joined by a ferry that came from Koh Phangan and we take the larger bus to the town of Surat Thani which is an hour away.  The bus was fairly standard compared to what we have become accustomed to traveling throughout SE Asia: aircon that barely flows out of the vents and loud music, but this time it was classic rock (Rock Me Like a Hurricane) which had the same 3 songs on repeat for the entire hour. 

We get close to Surat Thani and the bus makes a right hand turn down a dirt path.  I immediately turn to Amy and exclaim “Here we go!?!?” as we pull into their “office” which is a graveyard of old buses and parts.  The seats look like they came from an old bus or a plane that crashed in the area twenty years ago.  We wait in line where they slap on a sticker to you with your final location.  Some people were headed into town and a songthaew came for them immediately.  Others were going to the airport, after 10 minutes a brand new minibus came for them.  Finally there were 8 of us left going to either Penang, Kuala Lumpur, or Singapore.  The perfect number for one more minibus, which we are told would come in an hour.  That’s not too bad, only an hour to wait on broken seats, outside in the heat, where they are charging three times the price for water, and even charge 5 baht (that’s about 17 cents, what’s the point) for the bathroom which contained a larger mosquito population than the entire U.S. 

Our minibus finally came and as expected it was a little outdated.  Additionally they squeezed in an extra row of seats in the back, so there was not a trunk for the bags (which each person had 1 or 2 of).  On top of this there were already 4 people on the bus.  So the driver gave us the look, you know, the look of how can I get all of these people in here.  He takes out the bags that are already on the bus and plays a game of Tetris with the customers.  He starts by placing Amy and the hippy couple in the last row with a 4th man who was holding a plant on his lap (he was one of the people already on the bus).  The last row had no leg room and the seats were raised (so Amy’s head was just an inch away from the ceiling).  Then he loaded the next 3 smallest people (me and two German brothers) in the second to last row.  A British couple (who were also already on board) and the guy with the Brazil shirt got the next row that was almost like an exit row on an airplane it was so spacious.  At this point, bags were thrown in the aisles, on people’s laps, and onto the front row of seats where the 2 biggest people also had to sit.  It was a little tight, especially for Amy and the plant guy.  There was space in the very front row next to the driver, where there was a local sitting in the passenger seat.  We asked if we could put a few bags there, but the driver tells us in broken English several times, “That’s for Thailand.”  I think the confused emoticon would be perfect this moment.

We start to take off for the 4 hour trip to Hat Yai (a city in southern Thailand).  The control for the aircon is in the back, so we immediately turn it all the way to high as it was getting a little steamy in there.  We drive for around thirty minutes when we stop at what seems to be a local bus stop and bring in a Thai man in the front seat.  We then drive another 30 minutes and grab a Thai woman, again for the front.  I guess this is what he meant by “that’s for Thailand” as they all squeezed into the front row.  I am pretty sure they were all his buddies heading south for a vacation and getting a free ride as us farangs (what they call foreigners) who actually paid for the trip were thrown in the back.  To make things worse, the driver comes to the back and turns down the aircon.  This guy is really starting to get on my nerves.   We make it 2 hours (on a road where Amy bangs her head after each bump we go over and the hippy couple next to her split their time evenly between sleeping, making out, and playing rock, paper, scissors) where we need gas.  One by one, we get off the minibus to stretch our legs (climbing over all of the bags that were placed everywhere).  The gas station has a food court and a bathroom, but we are told to get back on in 3 minutes (the 3 minutes turns into 10 minutes because hippies prefer to make out rather than board the bus, and since they sit in the back, no one else can board until they do).

Back on board, we are told that we have another stop in 30 minutes for lunch.  We could have eaten lunch at the gas station’s food court, but we needed to go to a specific restaurant that pays the company.  We have 300 baht left to spend, but lunch is only 50.  So we use the rest of the money to buy cashews (because everyone my age eats cashews) and a cake (all of the locals are buying this cake for some reason).  The food isn’t bad (a little cold) and as we are eating a snake slithers by (it is officially time to leave the country).  We get back on the minibus and are told we had only an hour more to go, but I knew better as we still had 140 km to go before we got to Hat Yai.  Well sure enough, our driver made it in just a little over an hour (they drive fast here).  Before dropping us off though, we had to take the locals to some restaurant and deliver a few mystery packages that were hiding underneath our seats. 

We get to the bus company office in Hat Yai where we are once again broken up into groups based on destination.  So we lose the KL and Singapore people and pick up a girl coming from Krabi (beach on the other side of Thailand).  After giving passport information to expedite the border crossing, we got on a different minibus that was a little older, but had a lot more room.  And we got a new minibus driver that was all business.  It was 5pm at this point and we were originally told we would make it to Penang at 7, so doing the math, we only had 1 more hour to go (since there is a time change to add the other hour).  The girl from Krabi broke the news to us that we still had 4 more hours, ugggghhhh.  We make it to the border in just over an hour.  The bus driver tells us to go through, and come back when we are done.  We make it through Thai border control quickly, but have to wait for she-hippy to pay her 500 baht fine for going a day over her visa limit, and then wait a little longer for her to chat with he-hippy.  At this point they are getting a little annoying, so I ask them if they wouldn’t mind chatting on the bus so we could get to our destination.  The Malaysia border crossing took a little longer as they let locals cut in line.  But this gave me 15 minutes to watch our travel mates make out some more.  The bus driver was figuring out who the Herbie’s were (the bottleneck if you haven’t read the book, The Goal) and pushes them along.  We had two more stops to fill up on gas in which the driver didn’t let us out so we could get back on the road quickly.  Once in Malaysia, we immediately noticed the upgrade in the infrastructure.  There are actual highways, landscaped grounds on the side of the road, and many new German and Japanese cars on the road.  We even saw small children in car seats!

We made it to Penang around 10pm.  Everyone on our bus (except us) were staying at the same hostel, so we all get dropped off there.  We didn’t care, we just wanted to get away from these people.  Typically we love meeting new travelers, but after 15 hours we had enough.  Amy and I got a taxi to our hotel.  The man running the front desk couldn’t have been nicer.  We ask about the best way to get to Kuala Lumpur the next day and he goes into detail about why it is better to take the bus over a train.  He also gives us a dinner recommendation (of course we want to try local food).  We drop off our stuff and immediately head out for food.  On the way we see a travel agent, so we buy bus tickets for the next morning (one less thing to worry about).  Buses leave every hour to go to KL, so we decided to leave at noon since this is checkout time at the hotel.  We are told a minibus would pick us up at our hotel which was nice so we wouldn’t have to walk with our packs to the bus station. 

We continue on to dinner at a night market.  There are 10 food stalls with tables in the middle.  Penang (along with Singapore) is known as the food capital of SE Asia because of their unusal history of Malay and Chinese roots.  Our Lonely Planet guide has a list of 6 must try foods from the area.  So we go around to the stalls trying to find what looked good and sampled a few of the local delicacies.  We decide on Laksa Asam (or Penang Laksa) that is a fish-broth soup that's a bit sour from tamarind paste and has mint and thick white noodles, and Char Kway Teow, rice noodles that are stir-fried with egg, veggies, shrimps and Chinese sausage.  We also ordered 2 beers as it was a long day.  Since Malaysia is a mostly Muslim country, beer is a little pricier than we have become used to over the last two months.  Our entire meal cost 30 ringgit (3 ringgit equals a U.S. dollar), of which 22 ringgit were spent on the beverages.  I guess this is good as it will give me a chance to stay sober for a few days.  The food was delicious, but the entertainment was even better as it was karaoke night at the market.  Here we were in Malaysia at a market where we are the only Westerners having great food.  This entire day was exactly the experience I wanted when I made the decision to skip graduation, both good and bad.
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